All are invited under the canopy of the Father's compassionate grace

  • December 22, 2010
Baptism of the Lord (Year A) Jan. 9 (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

What is a true servant of God like? Many claim to speak and act on God’s behalf but all too often those words and actions do not bring honour to God. There are many times when God could do without human “favours.”

The passage from Isaiah offers us a model of the one who is pleasing in God’s sight and who is anointed for God’s mission. The individual in question — and the original identity is unknown — is a humble and non-violent person but this should never be mistaken for weakness or passivity. He does not have to resort to angry and hurtful words or aggressive actions for his power is of a different order and derives from a higher source, the spirit of God. The servant figure has a passionate and unwavering commitment to justice and peace as well as a desire to open the minds and hearts of others. There are many models for the reformers, revolutionaries and people of action and they all have their uses. But this passage provides the divine model, the one pleasing to God. God truly delights in anyone who even makes the attempt to live by these standards.

The words of Peter must have been difficult for him to say. It took two revelations from the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:28, 44-48) to drive home the point: no one is unclean or excluded because of their ethnic, religious or social position. People are defined by what they are on the inside: those who practise justice, kindness and mercy and who reverence God as they understand Him are acceptable regardless of their origins.

Isaiah witnesses to the growing awareness of the universal nature of God and this unfolding revelation continues in the pages of Acts: the spirit is poured out on all flesh and all are invited under the canopy of God’s compassionate grace. This also points the way to fruitful co-operation and dialogue with other religious faiths. Focusing on shared values and on the mutual good that we can do for the world builds mutual trust and respect. In the end this will be far more fruitful than endless theological arguments.

The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist was disturbing for many first-century Christians. Why would He need to be baptized, especially since John’s baptism was one of repentance? Each of the four evangelists handles the incident in a different way. Matthew utilizes midrash — Jewish imaginative exegesis — to provide an answer. As in all the Gospels, Matthew also underscores the subordinate or secondary role of John the Baptist, something not clear to first-century Christians. In the dialogue between Jesus and John it is clear that Jesus doesn’t really have to be there but is following the human path closely and setting an example. And rather than the voice from heaven speaking directly to Jesus as in Luke and Mark (you are my son) Matthew presents it in the third person (this is my son). It is clearly a public pronouncement to all of Israel.

Matthew will go on to portray Jesus as the new Moses and the definitive interpreter of the Jewish tradition and one who manifests the highest degree of righteousness and observance of the Law. This is the moment of divine anointing by God’s Spirit and it is clear that God delights in Jesus as the passage from Isaiah describes. For Jesus the baptism was a moment of confirmation and revelation. It is from this point that His public ministry begins.

Both the baptism of John and that of the early Christian community were supposed to be pivotal moments with lifelong consequences, not a mere social ritual or even a ticket to heaven. It was a rite of public commitment to walk the same path that Jesus walked. It was not something taken lightly — some in the early Church waited until middle age (or even the death bed!) for baptism for they were unsure of their ability to live up to its demands.

Our own baptism is also directed outward to others and to the world and should define every aspect of our life. When we renew our baptismal vows it should not be an empty ritual but a fervent public commitment for compassionate service and the pursuit of a just and peaceful world.

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